Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Half in Shadow ~ Mary Elizabeth Counselman

One of the most popular short stories ever to appear in Weird Tales was 'The Three Marked Pennies', written by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (1911~1995) and published in 1934. Counselman began writing at an early age, and her work appeared in several magazines, including Weird Tales, The Saturday Evening Post, and Good Housekeeping.

As I mentioned before, I collect William Kimber books. I started buying them a little while back because I like the colourful jacket designs by Ionicus. In 1980, William Kimber published Half in Shadow, a collection of fourteen stories by Counselman (see image left).* In addition to a preface by the author, it contains: The Three Marked Pennies, The Unwanted, The Shot-Tower Ghost, Night Court, The Monkey Spoons, The Smiling Face, A Death Crown for Mr Hapworthy, The Black Stone Statue, Seventh Sister, Para-site Mansion, The Green Window, The Tree's Wife, Twister, A Handful of silver.

The tales in this collection range from rather gentle to downright disturbing. The supernatural forces in some of the tales mean no harm, such as 'The Unwanted', 'The Shot-Tower Ghost', 'The Tree's Wife' and 'A Death Crown for Mr Hapworthy'. The supernatural force in 'The Green Window' is prophetic in nature, whereas that attached to 'The Monkey Spoons' actually brings about tragedy. 'Seventh Sister', on the other hand, is a very sad story about a black albino child who is feared and neglected from birth because she has 'the Power'.

Four of the stories really stand out, one of which is the first in the collection, 'The Three Marked Pennies'. In it, the town of Branton is buzzing with excitement following the appearance of strange little signs, typed on yellow paper. The signs explain that on the 15th of April three pennies will appear. One will be marked with a cross, one with a circle and one with a square. Whoever still owned these pennies on the 21st of the same month will receive a prize: a first prize of a thousand dollars in cash, a second prize of a trip around the world, or the third prize... death. It's such a simple tale, but so clever. I can see why it was so popular when it appeared in Weird Tales.

In 'Night Court', Bob Trask's reckless driving has caused the deaths of two people, but he's walked free from court in both cases because his family pulled strings. Now, he's been involved in another collision, and he's in trouble again... but this time he'll be tried by the Night Court.

In 'The Smiling Face', Sir Cedric Harbin, a middle-aged British archaeologist, and his new wife are on an expedition in the Matto Grosso interior, in Brazil, looking for the Lost City. Sir Cedric has been crushed by a boa constrictor and is confined to his bed. Believing that his wife may have run off with their handsome guide, he consults a witch-doctor, with terrible consequences. For me, this and the following story are the most sinister of the lot.

'The Black Stone Statue' is written in the form of a letter to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Racked with guilt, the writer has decided to reveal how he has created his Symphonies in Black, the sculptures which have made him famous.

The Kimber edition of Half in Shadow, in fine condition with a fine dust jacket, costs about twenty pounds (around $30), but copies tend to turn up in less than fine condition.

I've put together a section all about the William Kimber books with jackets designed by Ionicus, and you can access it by clicking here.
* Consul Books published Half in Shadow, a paperback containing fourteen of Counselman's tales, in 1964. Arkham House issued a hardback collection with the same title, but a different line-up of tales, in 1978. The William Kimber edition contains the same stories as the Arkham House book.

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